As the SIU football team begins what it hopes is a longer season than 11 games, it can take some tips about the grind from new wide receivers coach Nick Williams.
The former walk-on receiver at Alabama was a part of three national championship clubs (2009, 2011 and 2012) and 49 wins in 54 games. Despite preparing for a long season — 13 or 14 games, or more, are the norm for the Crimson Tide — they turned their practices into the toughest days of the week.
"Our warmups were the hardest thing ever," Williams said. "They grind the mental toughness into you, where, once you get to the game, it's easy, and I feel like, being here, it's similar to that. It's always, bam! Bam! Tough on tough. Good on good. All that stuff, even on scout team. It always plays out."
Road trips in the SEC were fun — 49 wins, remember? — but a bit disturbing. Williams remembers taking the team bus down to LSU, and watching 7 and 8-year-old kids giving them the one-finger salute on the side of the road. The fans at South Carolina said some things he couldn't repeat, he said, but, as usual with the Tide, not for long.
"I enjoy away games. I like getting booed and all that stuff, because we're trying to clear out the crowd by the fourth quarter," Williams said. "That means we're kicking their butts, so, that was good."
Things will play out for 11 straight weeks for SIU, beginning Saturday night against Mississippi Valley State (0-1). The Delta Devils were blown out at No. 2 North Dakota State over the weekend, 72-7, in Fargo.
The Salukis haven't made the FCS playoffs in eight years, but have as deep a team this season as they've had in a long time. Other than at quarterback, where junior Sam Straub should be handled with bubble wrap this week, SIU has legit backups at about every position but place-kicker. And Johnston City native Nico Gualdoni, who will kick off this year, could be serviceable there, too, if something should happen to Matt Sotiropoulos.
Williams is the only Saluki coach on staff that has reached the FCS playoffs the last three years. The former wide receivers coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State helped the Gamecocks to a 23-0 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference, a 33-6 record, and three playoff berths. The 2015 squad reached the national championship game, where it was walloped by the Bison and Carson Wentz, 37-10.
Josh Barge, a first team All-OVC receiver, also played in that game.
Williams, whose father, Bobby, is a special assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama, worked with SIU offensive coordinator John Van Dam there. Williams is excited about the diversity, both in the room and in the offense. With a better offensive line and a vastly improved defense, the Salukis could beat teams in a lot of different ways.
This year's receiver group lost sophomore Landon Lenoir, one of the team's top targets, to a season-ending knee injury, but returns three of the top-five guys from last season.
Connor Iwema, a 6-foot, 208-pound senior, is a powerful perimeter blocker and led the Salukis with five receiving touchdowns last year. Darrell James and Jimmy Jones are deep threats, along with junior college transfer Raphael Leonard, and SIU features three running backs to throw to, D.J. Davis, Daquan Isom and Cameron Walter.
"We do a lot of multiple looks," Williams said. "We spread it out, and we can get those big guys in there and run it down your throat. That's awesome, to adjust to, after being strictly in a spread offense last year."
It will be a bit of a change for Williams this year. SIU hopes it can continue his streak of consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories.